Texas Tech University

Doctoral Nutritional Sciences Student Receives Prestigious Fellowship

Amanda Bowman

July 25, 2019

Kalhara Menikdiwela

Kalhara Menikdiwela earned one of three highly competitive fellowships from the American Society for Nutrition.

Working on a doctoral degree is a time-consuming process that demands hard work and dedication from those pursuing it. Submitting a proposal to receive a competitive fellowship to help complete, or further advance, research experience needed to earn a doctoral degree can be just as challenging.

Kalhara Menikdiwela, a doctoral student of nutritional sciences through Texas Tech University's Graduate School, reaped the reward of submitting his research proposal by receiving the Gerber Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship through the American Society for Nutrition (ASN).

ASN awards three predoctral fellowships a year, and Menikdiwela was one of many vying for the only one sponsored by the Gerber Foundation.

"I'm very happy to receive the ASN predoctoral fellowship, sponsored by the Gerber Foundation," Menikdiwela said, "especially because it's a very competitive one. I'm thrilled I was selected."

Receiving a graduate fellowship is no easy feat, said Mark Sheridan, dean of the Graduate School.

"External fellowships, such as this one through the American Society for Nutrition, are extremely competitive," Sheridan said. "This award to Mr. Menikdiwela indicates the quality and importance of his research and his promise as a nutritional scientist."

Naïma Moustaïd-Moussa, a professor of nutritional sciences and director of the Obesity Research Institute (ORI, formerly the Obesity Research Center), who also leads the Nutrigenomics, Inflammation and Obesity Research (NIOR) lab in the College of Human Sciences, is one of Menikdiwela's main advisers and nominated him for the fellowship.

"I am very privileged to mentor Kalhara," Moustaïd-Moussa said. "He is an outstanding student who is highly motivated and very dedicated to his research. It was a pleasure nominating him for this prestigious award that he highly deserves, recognizing his research accomplishments and potential. To my knowledge, he is the first to receive such prestigious national ASN predoctoral award in our department."

Latha Ramalingam, a research assistant professor of nutritional sciences, is another of Menikdiwela's advisers. She praised his dedication to his work.

"Kalhara is very hardworking, and it is a joy to work with highly talented students like him," Ramalingam said. "He is very proactive and a self-motivated student."

Fish oil and obesity research

Part of the research Menikdiwela has been conducting in the NIOR lab includes understanding the effects of fish oil on maternal and childhood obesity.

"We're trying to identify whether fish oil will be able to reduce some of the adverse effects of maternal high-fat, diet-induced obesity on both the mothers themselves and their offspring," Menikdiwela said. "The goal of this proposal was to specifically identify a group of unique small molecules known as microRNAs, which could be used as potential therapeutic targets in obesity. We are trying to identify the role of fish oil in regulating these microRNAs."

Menikdiwela's main dissertation research is on the effects of the renin angiotensin system in obesity.

"The primary function of this system is to control blood pressure," he said, "but it also has been reported that the system is highly activated in the adipose (fat) tissue due to obesity. I'm trying to find the molecules and mechanisms behind this and whether or how this system is involved in obesity. If we can find those molecules, then we could use them to develop potential interventions to reduce obesity and related diseases like cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes."

Inspiration behind motivation

Menikdiwela was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His parents were actively involved in education, and he was drawn to science at an early age. Menikdiwela chose to focus on obesity research due to its connection to a wide range of diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, and the increasing frequency of some of these diseases in his home country.

"One of the main reasons I developed an interest and was keen on studying nutrition was due to its implications in non-communicable diseases," Menikdiwela said. "Additionally, Sri Lanka is one of the countries with the highest prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. When I looked for opportunities to broaden my research understanding, I found that a lot of research on Type 2 diabetes and obesity was being carried out at Texas Tech.

"Obesity is a very complex disease. When you have obesity, you have a risk for developing an array of diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. It's linked to several other diseases. Essentially, that's why I wanted to conduct more research on obesity. Because if we can reduce obesity, then this in turn would help us target other comorbidity diseases as well."

Spirit of gratitude

Moustaïd-Moussa is a principal investigator (P.I.) on the project with Menikdiwela and Ramalingam is a co-P.I. However, Menikdiwela said he sees them more as mentors than just professors.

"I thank them both for their continuous support and advice for my research," he said.

Menikdiwela also wanted to recognize his wife, Inosha Wijewardene, a doctoral student in biological sciences, and others for their support.

"I'd also like to thank my family for their continuous support," Menikdiwela said. "The nutritional sciences department, the Graduate School, the College of Human Sciences, the Obesity Research Institute and Texas Tech University. All the support, the fellowships, scholarships and all these learning opportunities and training they offer have been an imperative part of my journey in graduate studies here at Texas Tech."